Books: The mild one who revved up for an uneasy ride

From biker gangs to mob clans: Laura Thompson (left) and Ian Thomson on women in a man's world; The Perfect Vehicle by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Granta, pounds 10.99

Laura Thompson
Friday 13 June 1997 23:02

It isn't hard to imagine how this book would have seemed like a good idea. My first reaction was that I could almost hear the sexy phrase to which The Perfect Vehicle could be reduced: something like "Memoirs of a Girl on a Motorcycle". Great idea, right? Therein lies the problem, because books shouldn't be ideas. They should contain ideas; but they shouldn't be capable of reduction to a phrase that encapsulates their raison d'etre publie. Indeed, I wonder if the ease with which a book can be sales-pitched forms some sort of inverse relationship to its merit.

The Perfect Vehicle would have made an interesting article, or a good, much shorter book (it manages to fill 237 pages). Within its over-inflated mass, there is a precise and charming story: that of an American woman, sensitive and solitary, who falls in love with a motorbike freak. She finds, when the relationship has painfully ended, that motorcycling continues to release into her blood the slow, sweet stream of self-realisation.

The book could have taken this story as its centre. It could have examined the felicitous collision (if that is not an unfortunate word) between a withdrawn personality and an activity defined by noise, thrust and movement. Instead, this story is merely glimpsed from time to time, hinted in such passages as this: "From my mother I learned to write prompt thank-you notes for a variety of occasions; from Mrs King's ballroom dancing school I learned a proper curtsy and, believe it or not, what to do when presented with nine eating utensils at the same place setting ... from motorcycles I learned everything else."

This is the opening paragraph of the first chapter, and it makes the reader want to know more. Thereafter, instead of taking us for a short and satisfying spin, The Perfect Vehicle veers as disconcertingly as a skidding Harley-Davidson. It moves from autobiography to sporting history, from diaries of journeys through the US to descriptions of rallies that reek of oil and machismo (and whose fascination is inadequately conveyed), from complaints against the motorbike's negative image to attempts to explain its metaphorical significance.

In so doing, the book tells us the odd fascinating fact: motorcycling was, in its early days, encouraged for women because it was thought to be good for the female complexion, while Mussolini exhorted his officials to become "motorised centaurs" as a way of getting closer to the Italian public.

Unfortunately, the telling phrase above is not the author's. Nor is the one that likens activities such as motorcycling to the place where "existence (is) both supreme and valueless" (Charles Lindbergh, in fact). Melissa Holbrook Pierson's prose style tends, like her narrative, to be buried within a mixture of shapeless self-indulgence and unnecessary self-restraint. She waxes at length about "the pure pleasure of moving", for example, but when telling us about a photograph of black motorcyclists, she writes: "Well, it does no good to describe it. Just look."

In the end, everything about The Perfect Vehicle gives the impression that, while wanting to work out the nature of her obsession, the author had no clear notion of what she wanted to convey to readers. Perhaps, if this book's "idea" had been considered as its starting-point, rather than its be-all and end-all, the final product would have been quite different and infinitely better.

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